Yesterday I finished re-reading Brideshead Revisited. Actually, that’s not precisely true. I’ve been watching the old Jeremy Irons miniseries on Netflix streaming, and have been bowled over by it, even moreso than the first time I saw it. Certain passages in the film sent me back to Evelyn Waugh’s novel to see how he handled them in prose. I found myself drawn in to the final pages, reading about Lord Marchmain’s deathbed reconciliation, and Julia Flyte’s recognition that she cannot marry Charles because she cannot reconcile her need for God with mere human happiness.

It occurs to me how alien this is from the world we live in today — not just the non-Catholic world, but within the Catholic world as well. The idea that a Catholic in Julia Flyte’s position would have felt the need to choose between God and her romantic happiness is strange to our sensibilities. To be sure, I’m fairly confident that it was strange as well to Waugh’s world, which is why Waugh’s protagonist, Charles Ryder, is forever being puzzled and irritated by things Catholics in the book think or do.

Here’s the difference, I think: in our time and place, I think most Catholics would share Ryder’s befuddlement. Why should Julia make the choice she did? My guess is that the modern reader, Catholic and not, cannot feel the full emotional force of Julia’s renunciation, because the experience of faith (Catholic and not) has changed so radically. Gregory Wolfe, in an essay about Catholic writers of the 20th century, writes:

For Waugh, the notion that the life of faith ought to lead inevitably to worldly prosperity and what the pop psychologists call “wellness” is both unrealistic and dangerous. In a fallen world, afflicted by evil and stupidity, happiness can never be a gauge of fidelity to God. To think otherwise is to confuse happiness, with its bourgeois connotations of comfort and freedom from any burdens, with blessedness, or what Catholics call the “state of grace”.

Catholics, Waugh believed, have always clung to the foot of the cross, profoundly and intuitively aware of what the Spanish philosopher Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life”. When Julia Flyte, one of the “half-heathens”, reaches a moment of crisis in Brideshead Revisited, it is the unexpected memory of the crucifix on the wall of her nursery that shocks her into a recognition of how far she has drifted from God. As the characters in Brideshead enact their “fierce little human tragedy”, it becomes clear that they are all in some fashion struggling against God and his Church, symbolized by Brideshead Castle, that magnificent baroque backdrop to the novel’s action. Thomas Howard has spoken of the Church as the “unseen” character in the novel.

I am convinced that Waugh intended the Church to look like the “kiss of death”, not out of perversity but because he understood it to be a “sign of contradiction”. The sufferings that it seemingly inflicts, because of its laws and absolute claims, are the bitter herbs through which the disease of sin is purged. On closer inspection, the lives that the characters lead at the end of the novel, while not “happy”, are in many ways “blessed”. Sebastian is a holy fool, a drunken porter for a monastery in North Africa. When he learns of this, Charles asks Cordelia: “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”

Oh yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering might be, to be maimed as he is — no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him… I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much of it coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love.

Brideshead Revisited is only one example of the ways in which the twentieth-century Catholic writers sought to recover the sense of the sacred. But in its depiction of the Church as a sign of contradiction, it fulfills Flannery O’Connor’s requirements of revealing both a drama of salvation and a way of addressing “the particular tragedy of our own times”.

What would you say is “the particular tragedy of our own times”? In what ways does the Church — that is, Catholicism and other forms of Christianity — address it, or fail to address it? How about contemporary art, in particular film and the novel?

I would say that the particular tragedy of our times is that we wish to be free, but we don’t know what to do with our freedom. We think freedom is the absence of limits, but in conceiving of freedom in that way, we deny ourselves the possibility of understanding how freedom ought to be used.

I think Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom did a splendid job of exploring how the freedoms its protagonists won from their families and cultural expectations left them adrift and unfulfilled. The problem with the book is that Franzen gives the reader no idea how they ought to have chosen. He seems content to point out that the freedom we prize is no guarantee that we will live lives of order, meaning, or satisfaction — and in fact our freedom might break us, and make us miserable. On my reading of the novel, Franzen shrugs and says, “That’s how it is with us.” 

I don’t watch film nearly as much as I used to, but the only recent (recent-ish) film that comes to mind that addresses this tragedy is the Olivier Assayas film “Summer Hours,” released in the US in 2009. The film is about the freedom we have in the age of globalization to go wherever our talents and desires take us, but also the tragic and often-ignored costs of this freedom to the contexts that make it possible for us to flourish.

From an interview Assayas gave to Emmanuel Levy:

Globalization is in Jérémie and Adrienne’s professions that take them abroad.

Certainly. Yet I see a difference between the career of an artist like Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), who no longer thinks about geographical borders, and that of her brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) who is part of a movement, part of the history of modern economy – the very economy that Frédéric (Charles Berling) does not believe in. In Europe, there is a lot of abdication among technical/sales executives who identify with Anglo-Saxon free-market culture and its values, learned interchangeably in French or American business schools. These modern executives, the lower to middle ranks of today’s bourgeoisie, are often the most active players in society. They scorn their own history and, deep down, their own identity. I’m very skeptical about this development, which seems wrong to me. I wanted to tell the story of a family that has roots in the past but with ramifications in the present. What happens when one generation takes over from another? Globalization is as much a human as economic phenomenon, which implicates transformations in the social existence of individuals. In most branches of contemporary industry, an executive will have to deal with the issue of being relocated, to wherever his profession has been displaced, according to the new circulation of knowledge and skills. This has consequences in terms of transmission, history and identity. Ancient or traditional forms of the family are transfiguring. It is no longer a question of fighting to possess family heritage, but rather knowing how to get rid of it. How does this past, which no longer represents much, all of a sudden jump on us from behind? What do we do with it? What interests me in the movie is not so much the material value of things, but their symbolic value.

Is the family home, in its permanence, one of the film’s characters?

I know it’s not very original, but I’m convinced that places have souls. The house materializes the link between the characters and, in a way, what gets lost among them is this link. Generation after generation, something has been left in this house, layer by layer, stratus by stratus. When it’s gone, everything that united the characters comes undone, disappears, becomes a void. The house is at the heart of the film, as a material place and one invested in the flux of identity.

Here’s the trailer for “Summer Hours,” which I cannot recommend strongly enough: